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The “miracle cure”: cycling makes London a healthier, happier city


Freedom is the word I hear again and again when I get talking to people of all ages who ride a bike. We’ve supported lots of kids to ride their bikes over the years and seen them absolutely loving it. Smiles on their faces and joy in their eyes as they seize the independence that a bike gives them to get themselves to school, meet up with friends or go to the shops.


Not nearly enough young people get the opportunity to hop on a bike and experience the fun and the freedom that come with it. Sport England says in its Active Lives survey for 2017/18 over a third of school children in London are getting less than 30 minutes of activity each day. That’s not good enough.


For the sake of our children’s health, parents, carers, schools and boroughs and government must pull together to ensure the young people are at least getting the NHS’s recommended 60 minutes a day. As the NHS says, exercise is the “miracle cure we’ve all been waiting for”. It’s free and does wonders for your physical health, your mental wellbeing and self-confidence.


I head up Sustrans’ Behaviour Change programmes in London. A major part of what we do is about enabling and encouraging young people to incorporate cycling, scooting and walking into their daily routine. It’s easier to build exercise into our day than carve out a specific time to “get fit”. We’ve just got to rethink how we get around. Cycling or walking rather than driving to school could take 254,000 cars off London’s roads (TfL). Most school journeys by bike in London are 7 to 10 minutes. Changing how we get to school has huge potential for improving children’s health, cleaning up London’s air and freeing up our streets. 


We work with students, staff, parents and the wider school community to create activity and behaviour change support programmes tailored to each school’s needs. By making riding a bike a normal, everyday activity we get more kids riding to school. Our mission at Sustrans is to make it easier for people to walk and cycle, and in London, the Mayor wants to see cycling journeys double by 2024*. Getting young people to feel confident riding in London is part of getting more of them to choose the bike as their way of traveling around and to overcoming the challenges of obesity, air pollution and road congestion.


We work with kids everyday, and our team of 27 Behaviour Change Officersvisit schools all over London with their trusty Bromptons. Using a mix of public transport and cycling is made easy if you’ve got a folding bike!


Then pupils get passionate in their debates on climate change, about the steps they can take to limit their exposure to air pollution and how they and their families can contribute to cleaning up London’s air by using the car less and cycling more. Paired with classroom activity, our practical cycling sessions help them feel confident on a bike.


We’ve worked with over 94,000 pupils in schools across London in 2018, and our programme really gets results. We’ve seen a 107% increase in primary and secondary school pupils cycling at least twice a week as a result of our programme. Seeing these shifts in how people move around gives you a great feeling that you’re making a difference.


Behaviour change is a big piece of the jigsaw. Another piece is making our roads feel safe.  The more London’s cycling infrastructure changes to include segregated cycle lanes and liveable neighbourhoods, the safer it will feel to cycle those everyday journeys like the school run. When it feels safe to ride, more families will be swapping petrol power for pedal power and we’ll be seeing even more smiles and children feeling happy and enjoying freedom outdoors.


Here’s to Car Free Day and a happier, healthier city for all!


*TfL Cycling Action Plan target http://content.tfl.gov.uk/cycling-action-plan.pdf

Louise is Head of Behaviour Change at Sustrans London, leading a team of behaviour change officers working in schools, communities, London borough and workplaces across the capital. In 2018, she was a finalist in the Everywoman in Transport and Logistics Awards. Her passion is placing people at the heart of decisions around how we use public space  and she has delivered award-winning community street design projects.  She believes in creating spaces that work for everyone and combining community engagement, street design and behaviour change initiatives to achieve this.

Find out more about our Campaign for Movement.